The television adaptation of How to Marry a Millionaire (1957–59) premiered on the NTA Film Network on October 7, 1957, and was described by one reporter as “a frivolous series, by turns amusing and corny.” That the show was, even in its day, notably camp serves as an important counterpoint to accusations of dated-ness—the implication that it ever reflected the values of the day with a straight face. Rather than seeing How to Marry a Millionaire as a relic of the past, we might view it instead as surprisingly contemporary, both in its status as a trans-industry consumer product and in its comic point of view that pokes fun at 1950s gender performativity, teases the viewer with the ever-present threat of impropriety, and even proves eerily prescient about the future of computerized dating.
Those of us who have tired of calling cultural objects and figures “problematic” have Roxane Gay to thank for introducing the formulation of the “bad feminist.” The “bad feminist” possesses all of the most progressive, enlightened beliefs but makes choices that make her feel conventional, even retrograde. As Gay describes the term:
To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to the good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman… . I want to be independent, but I want to be taken care of and have someone to come home to.1
As a theoretical lens, the bad feminist captures the ambivalence of living your values when they get in the way of being true to yourself, succumbing to your gender programming, or having a good time. But as compelling as the “bad feminist” term proves to be, how far might we might stretch its limits to use the concept in new and different ways? What else might the bad feminist category allow us to explore or explain?
The leading ladies of television's How to Marry a Millionaire (NTA, 1957–59), after all, are not bad feminists per se: they have no feminist consciousness and, given that the show premiered six years before the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, we can hardly blame them. Thus comparing these characters to post–women's liberation creations from Norman Lear, Diane English, and others is unfair and misleading. Millionaire's Mike, Greta, and Loco are not so much in dire need of second wave feminism as they are laying the groundwork for it through their wit, girl-power grit, and devotion to one another. Yes, even as the women of Millionaire fixate entirely on men, clothes, and money, these husband-seeking missiles are enacting a campy and liberating form of proto–second wave feminist fun, and by troubling the distinction between the modern woman and the 1950s throwback, the show redefines the bad feminist as a potentially anachronistic phenomenon. These women may not know they are feminists, but they are—just not very “good” ones.
Millionaire's television premiere four years after the 1953 release of the film by the same name demonstrates an increased cooperation between the film and television industries by the late 1950s. The history of this collaboration is detailed at length in Christopher Anderson's 1994 book Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties.2 National Telefilm Associates coproduced the show with Twentieth Century Fox, which was the rights holder to the 1953 film, as Fox “sold its library to National Telefilm Associates for a 50 percent interest in NTA Film Network.”3 The film and the television incarnations have the same premise: three young women share a penthouse apartment that they cannot afford in the hopes of attracting millionaire husbands. The means by which their prime real estate will result in a prime mate is unclear, but even vaguer is why the women insist that, if one of them ropes a rich husband, all three will be provided with a lavish lifestyle.
Attractive, single friends sharing an apartment and adventures?! It sounds cliché today, but at the time, the television landscape was not yet littered with lighthearted portraits of singledom targeted at female audiences. In the late 1950s, Westerns like Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955–75) and Have Gun Will Travel (CBS, 1957–63) were pulling in high ratings, as were family sitcoms and game shows. Television's modern single girl was most likely a teenage one living at home with mom and dad, though a few shows—including Private Secretary (CBS, 1953–57) starring Ann Sothern and Our Miss Brooks (CBS, 1952–56) with Eve Arden—centered on young, unmarried, female professionals. The representation was not always flattering, as with the unattractive, desperate spinster-secretary character in The Bob Cummings Show (NBC/CBS/NBC, 1955–59), not to be confused with the other desperate spinster-secretary character in The Milton Berle Show / Texaco Star Theatre (NBC, 1948–56). How to Marry a Millionaire, then, shares more DNA with the single-girl culture of the 1960s and 1970s that it anticipates, not only Helen Gurley Brown's book Sex and the Single Girl (1962) but, on television, That Girl (ABC, 1966–71) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970–77). Millionaire may share That Girl's cutesy cleanness, but the latter Girl, Ann Marie, is financially dependent on her father and happily monogamous with her boyfriend, Donald. The women of Millionaire provide for themselves and, in that way, are much more like Mary, Rhoda, and the financially solvent and happily single set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, though the women of Millionaire are decidedly more marriage-minded than Mary Richards would ever be.
In Millionaire's transition from film to television, the focus shifted from girl-power ensemble to star vehicle for actress Barbara Eden, later and best known as Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie (NBC, 1965–70). Eden's character is a merging of two from the movie; in the film, the character of Loco is played by Betty Grable, with Marilyn Monroe playing her bodacious, bespectacled friend, Pola, while in the television show, Eden plays a batty model named Loco whose resistance to wearing her glasses results in numerous Mr. Magoo–esque gags. Lori Nelson, who plays Greta, only lasted one season on the show, contract negotiations having failed because, in her words: “I had first billing, but that's all I had. Loco (Barbara Eden) got the most footage and Merry Anders got the sharp lines… . I will never again do a series with two other girls, or even one other, for that matter. I was third billing in everything, despite my first star billing. I didn't want to work for NTA again. They're bad boys.”4
Nelson would be recast for the show's second and final seasons, but she—it should be noted—was justified in her complaints. Mike (Merry Anders), with her job in the business world, takes on the role of older sister and den mother while Eden sits at the center of many storylines and gets most of the laughs, greatly exceeding Monroe's role in the film version. Indeed, Eden's Loco is a sanitized, television-ready version of Monroe's sex goddess, perky and with a smile just wide enough to call her a hot nerd. Somehow, in the parceling out of personality traits, Greta ends up empty-handed: she is a model, like Loco, but not quite as dumb, nor is she as sharp as Mike. No wonder Nelson felt like the odd woman out.
Contemporary viewers will no doubt deem the show's hijinks cheesy and contrived, while critics at the time were divided between calling it “corny” and “sophisticated.”5 Somehow the show manages to be both, as a scene from the 1957 episode “Subletting the Apartment” illustrates.6 To raise funds, the girls sublet the apartment during the day to some musicians who work at night, and when one of their beaus comes over, Greta scrambles to hide evidence that there are men living there (video clip 1). The setup is obvious from the moment the jealous, previously cuckolded boyfriend comes on the scene, so what is interesting about this sequence is how it gestures to the ever-present possibility of impropriety even if they never do the deed. These are “nice girls,” but they don't have to be. Who is there to guard over their virtue? They have all the resources at their disposal to go bad: being cute, single, and in possession of an apartment that allows for privacy and discretion. For a moment, Millionaire becomes a sex comedy—just without the sex.
Television's How to Marry a Millionaire, even more so than its film predecessor, belongs to the “apartment plot” genre, as characterized by Pamela Robertson Wojcik's volume of the same name. Wojcik writes of how “the urban girl, especially the apartment dweller, is often presumed to be sexually active” (and while these girls are not, they might as well be).7 She goes on to cite Caroline Bird, who writes of how “in the city, single girls were ‘trying out new styles of marriage and non-marital man-woman relationships, as well as discovering themselves in careers.’”8 The show manages to have it both ways: establishing the respectability and chastity of these three roommates while suggesting what might be if the women (or the television censors) elected to go a little wild.
If “Subletting the Apartment” is about the specter of premarital sex, the seduction scene in the episode “Loco Goes Home” revolves around the performance of womanhood.9 The ladies pretend they want to sublet their apartment to meet the millionaire Mr. Biddle, but Greta decides that since “most men go for either the sophisticated Tallulah type or the slinky Marilyn Monroe type … we'll give Mr. Biddle his choice.” Mike plays Tallulah, while Greta delivers a breathy Marilyn impression, and Loco, too ditzy to take on a lead role, is a sporty prep (video clip 2).
“Marilyn” wins out, but only temporarily—Loco accidentally reveals their plot within earshot of Biddle, who storms off, betrayed. The scene partially hinges on the meta-humor of Monroe having played Pola in the film, as Monroe the movie star ironically coexists alongside Eden's Loco in the twin universes of Millionaire. But this scene also calls to mind a much-repeated anecdote about Monroe, in which the actress allegedly asked her friend if she'd like to see her become Marilyn and, as she walked down the street, transformed from Norma Jean into the iconic bombshell. That is to say, even Marilyn Monroe is not Marilyn Monroe, such that Greta's performance is an imitation of an imitation. The performance of feminine allure then generates a camp entertainment with the capacity to undermine patriarchy and heteronormativity, if and when it chooses to do so.10
Right in the middle of Millionaire's run, the 1958 musical Flower Drum Song came on the scene, the most memorable song of the show being “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” It features lyrics such as: “When I have a brand new hair-do / With my eyelashes all in curls / I float as the clouds on air do / I enjoy being a girl.” The point of view of Millionaire similarly relishes in the superficial, cosmetic pleasures of femininity. Each episode opens with a sober documentary-style sequence, paired with an obviously male voice-of-god narrator. In the introduction for the aired pilot episode, entitled “The Penthouse,” stock footage of a large boat on the water is paired with a voice-over about how to buy a yacht.11 One of the actresses' voices interrupts and says she knows another way that you can get the money to buy a boat: “You can marry it!” The opening credits begin: the title of the show, with strings of diamonds floating around the text like confetti and streamers (video clip 3).
What does this running gag accomplish? “You can marry it!” proves both a disruption of male authority performed by a male voice-over, and a celebration of the luxuries the patriarchy affords. The result is a conflicted strain of girl power, the message linking pre–second wave expression with contemporary postfeminist discourse. As Diane Negra explains, “Postfeminism offers the pleasure and comfort of (re)claiming an identity uncomplicated by gender politics, postmodernism, or institutional critique,” adding that “any attempt to precisely pinpoint the onset of a postfeminist era will lead to a receding historical horizon” that goes back as far as the 1920s, according to the work of Lois Banner.12 In other words, postfeminism was arguably born after first wave feminism and predates second wave feminism entirely, so how does that invite us to read media and culture differently?
Catharine Lumby writes of how cultural studies has “shifted away from studies of what popular culture, including popular media, was doing to people to a focus on what people were doing with it,” and that “feminist cultural studies' … focus on quotidian pleasures led to renewed appreciation of genres … once derided as either trashy or antifeminist.”13 What did viewers do with Millionaire? Did Millionaire's bad feminists set the groundwork for the “better” feminists that followed, second and third wave Feminism (with a capital F)? Is it grotesque to call a gold digger an entrepreneur, or is that just how culture works? Bonnie J. Dow coined “lifestyle feminism” as a way to describe the glamorous trappings of women's liberation that a show like The Mary Tyler Moore Show presents, but more broadly, a term like that reminds us how we may not notice or recognize what exactly television is selling us.14
Maybe what is so troublesome about media we call “dated” is not the reminder of how far we have come, but rather how little has changed. For this reason, I want to conclude with the 1958 episode of Millionaire entitled “The Truthivac,” a chilling forward look at the future of online dating.15 In this episode, Loco becomes embroiled with Douglas Brock, a millionaire's son so spoiled and unpleasant that even her friends root against him. “Millions or no millions, he's a bum,” Mike warns Loco. (Granted, Mike and Greta also believe that, with his attitude problem, he will be disinherited sooner or later. It is noteworthy how many millionaire characters on the show are upright and wonderful fellows, as though their fortunes are tied to their superior moral fiber.) While Loco equivocates on whether she should accept his proposal of marriage, she is presented with the opportunity to use a new dating computer called the Truthivac to test their compatibility (video clip 4).
Anyone who has ever toyed around with Match.com or has watched enough eHarmony commercials will recognize these claims to scientific rigor that promise compatibility and chemistry in equal measure. The girls' assertion that computerized dating saves time is a common refrain in 2017, though it gets a hearty laugh in 1958. Greta and Mike are baffled when the Truthivac matches Loco with the dreadful Douglas … until they discover that he has rigged the machine by replacing all the potential mates with his own name. Loco, on the verge of eloping with Douglas, promptly dumps him for his betrayal. The lesson learned? Digitized deceit is unforgivable, whereas analog deceit is just dating.
The Truthivac is repaired, and Loco is paired with her male equivalent: a fellow near-sighted towhead whose geekiness is no turn-on (figs. 3, 4).
All of this is to say that these programs, so dated, corny, and cringeworthy, have something meaningful to offer present-day feminist media critics. These three women are the precursors to Max and Caroline on the hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls (CBS, 2011–ongoing), waitresses struggling to survive on saltines until they hit the jackpot. And the women on Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004) might not have been explicitly looking for husbands, but the girls in Millionaire do just as much dating as Carrie Bradshaw and her crew. As Lori Nelson would tell one reporter, “No matter how long the series lasts, none of us can ever actually marry a millionaire without spoiling the whole plot.”16 The generic or serialized nature of the show, then, ends up making the cultural statement that dating is a fun and lively thing to dramatize and, by extension, to do. In Millionaire, we see the single, professional woman living independently and asserting that female friendship, not male companionship, is the truest and most constant source of intimacy.
As a case study, TV's How to Marry a Millionaire contributes to new understandings of media convergence, women in the 1950s, and representations of gender in media and culture. Unfortunately, this show's secret history has been all too secret. I had never heard of the program until stumbling across a handful of scripts at the UCLA archive, filed under the Margaret and Paul Schneider collection. A Google search provided me with some of the recorded episodes, but how would I have known where to look without that initial trip to the university archives? And without a grant from my university to make the trip to Los Angeles, how would I have been at UCLA in the first place? To watch golden-age television dramas like Marty (NBC, 1955) and Patterns (NBC, 1956), epic tales of postwar white masculinity, one need only have a vague knowledge of the Criterion Collection and an Amazon account. Getting a hold of How to Marry a Millionaire, on the other hand, requires more time and access than most scholars—let alone consumers—possess.
In their essay entitled “Is Archiving a Feminist Issue?: Historical Research and the Past, Present, and Future of Television Studies” (2008), Rachel Moseley and Helen Wheatley explain how the “study of television's past … has ramifications for the present … [as] archiving practices affect and produce the kinds of histories that can be written.”17 They acknowledge that “historical television studies are flourishing in the UK,” where they are based, as well as in other countries, but that “part of [their] larger project … as television historians … is to encourage the gatekeepers of television history to value women's programming more highly on preservation and access agendas.”18 Only when women's programming is more highly valued will a show like How to Marry a Millionaire take its place in a television studies canon—or feminist anti-canon, as the case may be. If federal funding is slow to support this kind of research and preservation within the United States, hopefully the capitalist impulse will pick up the slack. Streaming services, together with new baby boomer–oriented television channels like MeTV and Cozi, could potentially bring more obscure 1950s television programs out of the shadow of the university file cabinet and into the wider cable and Internet universes. It is enough to make one positively archive-feverish.19
A girl can dream. And as Susan J. Douglas writes in Where the Girls Are (1995), “Growing up female with the mass media helped make me a feminist … [so we] must rewatch and relisten with a new mission: to go where the girls are,” even if that where is holed up in a penthouse apartment, forever plotting the capture of an eligible millionaire.20